A Minute with Miles

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How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. 

Franz Liszt, Pt. 2

12 hours ago
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I mentioned that it was Franz Liszt who invented the solo piano recital, and that the frenzied reactions of Liszt’s audiences became known as “Lisztomania,” or “Liszt fever.” But I don’t want you have the impression that Liszt’s recitals were all virtuoso flash and little substance. Liszt had an enormous repertoire—he certainly played his own showpieces, but he also played pieces by all the great composers of the day and by those he called the “classics,” including many works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. And by all accounts he played these pieces wonderfully.

Franz Liszt, Pt. 1

Oct 17, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In 1841 Franz Liszt played three concerts in Paris, and afterward he wrote, “My…solo recitals…are unrivalled concerts, such as I alone can give in Europe at the present moment… Without vanity or self-deception, I think I may say that an effect so striking, so complete, so irresistible had never before been produced by an instrumentalist in Paris.” Well, if it’s true it ain’t braggin’, and by all accounts it was true.

Mozart's Optimism

Oct 16, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s hard to find a classical music lover who doesn’t love the music of Mozart. It’s when we try to describe why we love Mozart that things can get complicated. We’re describing something indisputably real—our love of Mozart—but unless we stick to strictly technical analyses, we have to use words that will necessarily be both subjective and metaphorical. My own words? I keep coming back to two: humanity and optimism.

Beethoven's Shadow

Oct 15, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For convenience sake, the 19th century is usually known as the era of Romanticism in classical music. This is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly does lump a great number of composers of very different styles into one broad category. Another way to view the 19th century is simply as the era of Beethoven. And that’s because after Beethoven, all composers were seen and evaluated in Beethoven’s light, or rather in his enormous shadow. Seen by the public, and seen by themselves. Imagine the courage it took to write a symphony after hearing Beethoven’s symphonies!

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In 1838, ten years after the death of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann traveled to Vienna, and while he was there he paid a visit to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven. On a whim, Schumann decided to call on Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand, who was living in Vienna, and this turned out to be perhaps the most fortuitous social call in the history of music.

Density of Brilliance

Oct 11, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A scientist I know was talking about great works of literature the other day, and she said that what characterized them was the “density of brilliance.” What a wonderful phrase. And how perfect, too, for great works of music. In any five minutes—or any two minutes—of a musical masterpiece, we can find a veritable parade of brilliant ideas. What’s interesting is that the brilliant ideas don’t always sound brilliant. Sometimes they just sound… right. Absolutely right. And even inevitable. But they weren’t inevitable.

What Will Last

Oct 10, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Perhaps you’ve thought about this: Bach and Mozart died over two hundred years ago – – Is there anybody alive today whose music will be played two hundred years from now? It’s a tricky question. There are contemporary composers whose music I like and admire, but I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on predicting their immortality. When it comes to the great composers of the past, we’re lucky: history has done the winnowing for us.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I wonder what today’s voice teachers would think of the composer Gioacchino Rossini’s ideas for a vocal training curriculum. According to Rossini, learning the art of bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” should begin with many months of soundless exercises, starting no later than the age of twelve.

Practicing

Oct 8, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When I was a little boy just starting violin lessons, my teacher’s instructions were that I should practice a half hour every day. For a six-year-old this seemed an enormous load. I liked the violin… but a whole half hour, every day? Usually I would start, and then run to my mother every five minutes asking, “Is it a half hour yet?” And even later, when I started on the road to a career in music, practicing remained a duty, something I knew I had to do even if I would rather have been doing something else.  And now?

Indispensible Three

Oct 7, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s always fun to propose lists of the “ten best” of something – or the ten worst of something, for that matter. But when it comes to thinking about composers of classical music, there’s a word I like better than “best,” and that word is indispensable. And the number I have in mind isn’t ten, but rather three. Which three composers are indispensable to any account of those who have made the greatest contributions to the living repertoire of classical music? And not as a matter of personal taste, but as a matter of judgment.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve spoken about this before, but the subject seems to come up a lot, so why not go over it again: in America, 99.9 per cent of the people who play the flute for a living call themselves flutists, not flautists. That’s not a scientific number, but I think it’s pretty accurate. In any case, I’ve never heard any American flute playing colleague refer to herself as anything but a flutist, so please don’t ever worry about sounding uncultured or unsophisticated if that’s the term you use. And where does the word “flautist” come from, anyway?

Modern Music

Oct 3, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There are many people who say they love classical music, but not “that modern stuff.” What’s interesting is that some of “that modern stuff” is well over a hundred years old. Sometimes the term “modern” is just a stand-in for “unfamiliar,” and it’s true that some listeners have no appetite or patience for music that’s unfamiliar, and aren’t even willing to give it a try. That may be their loss… but then again we’re all entitled to stick to what we know and love. I think that more often, though, what people mean by “modern stuff” is simply music that doesn’t seem to make sense.

Mesmer

Oct 2, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you explore the history of psychotherapy, you’ll come upon the name Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734, and it was Mesmer who invented the term “animal magnetism,” which is what he called the mysterious force, or fluid, that flowed through his own body and that he could redirect for therapeutic purposes. Before you laugh, you should know that Mesmer had many therapeutic successes and many disciples, and for a period in his life he was rich and famous. And it’s from Mesmer’s name that we get the word “mesmerize.” What does this have to do with music?

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The most common tempo markings in music are words like allegro, adagio, and andante. But often composers indicate expression along with tempo, and this is when foreign-language dictionaries can come in handy. I could make a long list of interesting tempo and expression markings, but here are two of my favorites: Rasendes Zeitmass, Wild, Tonschönheit is nebensache: Racing tempo, Wild, Beauty of tone is irrelevant. That’s Paul Hindemith’s marking for the fourth movement of his Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1.

Glass Armonica

Sep 30, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In May of 1761, Benjamin Franklin was in Cambridge, England, and he heard a man play a performance on musical glasses. They were crystal wine glasses filled with different levels of water, and when the performer rubbed the edges of the glasses, they produced different notes. Franklin was entranced by the sound, and he invented a mechanical version of the musical glasses that he called the glass armonica – that’s harmonica without the H. Franklin’s instrument consisted of a set of glass bowls mounted in a trough on a spindle.

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